Cultural marriages could be hiding forced marriages in NZ

Laila shared her story with Newshub prompting debate over the rules in NZ (Newshub.)
Laila shared her story with Newshub prompting debate over the rules in NZ (Newshub.)

Last night Newshub brought you the story about a Kiwi woman forced into marriage at the age of 15.

That's prompted a debate over the rules that allow some 16- and 17-year-olds to marry.

Currently they need to get consent from their parents, but a private members Bill would push to make the Family Court have ultimate sign-off.

It would help "identify" and "weed out" any marriages where a young person may have been forced into it. This is already law in Australia. 

In New Zealand in 2014, 33 females and 12 males aged 16 or 17 were married. Last year there were 36 females and 12 males. But these are just the number of "registered marriages".

It's understood there are many more cultural marriages carried out by religious leaders that aren't counted in the official stats but are recognised for visa purposes.

Jo Hayes, the MP sponsoring the private members Bill, suspects the number of 16- and 17-year-olds married in New Zealand is actually much higher. 

"It's around about that cultural marriage thing that we've really got to nip that down, because of course marriage can be hidden in a cultural marriage."

Ethnic women's refuge Shakti agrees the numbers don't tell the whole story about what proportion of underage marriage could be forced, but say Family Court consent would be a good stopgap measure.  

"I think one marriage is reason enough to do it, isn't it? So we shouldn't put numbers on that," Shakti advocate Wendy Vyas says.

There is nothing illegal about an arranged marriage; Ms Hayes says the concern is around forced marriages where one partner has little or no choice in the arrangement.

"What I also found is that a lot of people that practise this, of marrying their young girls off at 11 years old, is because of their poverty situation and that they are marrying, paying to have their daughters taken off their hands,"  she says.

In September, the Government announced it would make forced marriage illegal in a raft of law changes around family violence.

Justice Minister Amy Adams doesn't believe it's prevalent enough to lead to many prosecutions.

"We have to be careful not to over-criminalise families who are working in a perfectly lawful and appropriate way, so I think we'll see how this plays out and I think at this stage the settings feel about right."

She says there's a more pressing concern.

"What I am very conscious of and mindful of actually is immigration status being used as a weapon of control in family situations, and we certainly do see evidence of that and that is what we are very mindful of in our family violence reforms."

The visa category of "culturally arranged marriage" is set up for couples where "parents have arranged the marriage" and the overseas partner will marry their New Zealand-based partner within three months of their arrival.

In the 2014/15 year there were 91 successful applications under this category, and Immigration New Zealand records in age range statistics of zero to 19, so nine of these applications were for girls 19 or younger.

A UN committee to address discrimination against women looked specifically at this issue four years ago. It recommended then that New Zealand should lift the age of marriage to 18 without exceptions.